May 172008

After his plane landed in Ben Gurion airport this week, Bush may just have got a whiff of the clowds of smoke engulfing the Middle East skyline. When he was last in the region, four months ago, on the heels of the Annapolis conference, he had declared that he was optimistic peace and prosperity could be brought to the region. Instead, its hot spots have grown hotter, while the deadly flames are threatening to consume new territory all the time.

Bush will not be stopping at Beirut. The Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh may have been judged to be an altogether calmer location for his meeting with Prime Minister Siniora, than the troubled Lebanese capital, where festering tensions have recently erupted into violent street clashes between government supporters and the Hizbullah-led opposition. That the American president should be avoiding Lebanon is thus understandable. The political equation that he and his administration have striven to consolidate there after the short-lived euphoria of the “Cedar Revolution” has all but evaporated. The camp they have been backing through the last 18 months of political feuding, and institutional paralysis, has never looked weaker and more shaken than it does this week.

For much of its modern history, Lebanon has been the battlefield for regional power struggles and the window where the Middle East displays its balance of power. There is no such thing as strictly domestic Lebanese politics. The country’s political landscape has always been drawn outside its tiny borders, by the powerful regional and international players of the day. What goes on in that small stretch of land offers a reflection of current shifts in the region’s political chessboard and a glimpse of their possible outcomes.

Having forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Washington embarked on a mission to redraw the country’s labyrinthine political map. By lavishing political, financial and military support on its allies in the March 14 group, the administration sought to marginalise those it regards as representatives of the Syrian-Iranian axis – spearheaded by Hizbullah and the Christian Maronite leader General Michel Aoun.

As part of this confrontational strategy, it blocked any consensual resolution of the crisis, insisting on Hizbullah’s disarmament – a task which Israel had failed to achieve in 33 days of brutal bombardment back in 2006. But as the recent events in Lebanon have painfully illustrated, this policy has ended in abysmal failure. The noose which Washington has worked tirelessly to tighten around the opposition’s neck now threatens its friends. On Monday, the leaders of the pro-US alliance, Saad Hariri and Waleed Jumblatt, were besieged by opposition forces, for hours unable to set foot outside their residences in Beirut and the Mount.

For Washington, Lebanon is the most recent – though, perhaps, not the last – in a series of failures and setbacks unleashed by the Iraq catastrophe five years ago. The situation is not much better in Palestine next door. For months, it had raucously demanded that Palestinians hold legislative elections – a move designed to bolster Mahmoud Abbas’ frail legitimacy after the death of the charismatic Yassir Arafat. But yet again, its predictions proved disastrously miscalculated.

Much to its horror, Hamas emerged as the winner, elected by a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Rather than strengthened, Abbas and his team were further weakened. Just as it had done in Lebanon recently, Washington moved to widen the rift between the rival sides. It worked to undo the landmark deals signed in Cairo and Mecca aimed at bringing the conflict to a close through unity a Fatah- Hamas national unity government. The administration went as far as to conspire with warlord Mahmoud Dahlan and his militiamen to topple the elected government and engineer a Palestinian civil war. Mahmoud Abbas and his administration ended up being driven out of the Strip, and the engineered chasm culminated in one government in Ramallah and another in Gaza.

Iraq was supposed to be the midwife for the birth of the “new Middle East”, a Middle East where the US, Israel and their allies reign unchallenged. In truth, Washington was right; the invasion did have a domino effect on the wider region. The Iraq earthquake generated tremors which have been felt across the entire Middle East.

From Iraq, to Lebanon, and Palestine, the ground is increasingly shaking under the feet of Washington and those who have bound their political fortunes with it. Not only has the administration been unable to settle the conflicts raging there in its allies’ favour, it has been placed on the defensive, increasingly pushed to the corner by its emboldened opponents. Through its string of misguided military adventures, fought directly, as in Iraq, or by proxy, as in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Washington has caused the pendulum to swing away from its friends and towards the “axis of evil”.

Perhaps what Waleed Jumblatt, the seasoned Lebanese politician (who may be regretting his decision to desert the Syrian camp for Washington’s), has told the Guardian last Monday is just as true of the Middle East as it is of Lebanon. “Hizbullah and Iran won the battle of Beirut,” he said. “The Iranians chose the moment America is weak in the Middle East. The balance of power has completely changed in Lebanon and now we wait to see what new rules Hizbullah, Syria and Iran will lay down.”

The distance between the “New Middle East” he envisioned in 2003 and the Middle East he visited this week has never been greater. All Bush’s sweet promises of prosperity and democratisation have vanished into thin air, leaving a long, bitter and bloody trail of conflict, political schism and sectarianism behind. Perhaps, instead of banqueting in Tel Aviv, Cairo and Riyadh, the president should be walking the streets of Baghdad, Gaza and Beirut. There, he will catch a glimpse of his “new Middle East”.


First Published in The Guardian, Saturday 17 May 2008

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